Every month brings more additions to the “American experience in China” genre, but few are as astute and entertaining as Michael Meyer’s “The Road to Sleeping Dragon,” an account of “an unexpected engagement with China that has lasted more than twenty years.”
A Minnesota boy fueled by curiosity about world affairs, Meyer enrolled in the Peace Corps in 1995 and found himself posted to Neijiang, a small city in a remote part of Sichuan Province, to teach college “writing and civilization.”
“Heroic Eastern Plumblossom” (the name he is given) is a very relatable guide who tells his story with humor and discernment. Early in his stay, he comes across a piece of advice in a Pearl Buck novel and allows this to structure his outlook: “Be willing to lend yourself to China. You will see a great deal of beauty.” Drawing from the letters he wrote to his mother at the time, Meyer describes the college’s simple surroundings, the diligence of his students, the ox tethered to a gate. Yet he is also a sharp-eyed observer of the harshness of Chinese life.
Schooled in the Peace Corps mantra, “Never offend!” Meyer worries about taboo subjects, but Mr. Wang, his supervisor, tells him, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, “We have nothing to fear from the West.” Moreover, Wang encourages him to teach the Beatles for their clear enunciation and their useful vocabulary.
The Yang to the Yin is more troubling. Meyer hears Chinese colleagues who regard students as “ducks to be stuffed,“ and he learns that students regard college as “summer camp,” a preparation for a life of hard work and political maneuvering.
One theme that runs throughout the book is Meyer’s devotion to learning Chinese. He takes us through his exercises, his frequent mistakes and his growing ability to understand the “heard-said” (the rumors on the street).
Another is his budding romance with Frances, a Chinese woman teaching English in Beijing, where Meyer lands after his Peace Corps service ends. Through Frances, he comes to understand the frustrations Chinese face — when applying for a visa to study in the U.S., for instance, or when trying to make sense of the jokes Meyer’s father tells. At one amusing point, Meyer reads fortune cookies to Frances while she recasts the messages into Chinese fatalism:
Your present plans are going to succeed. (“No plan is the best plan.”)
The current year will bring you much happiness. (“This is as good as it gets.”)
As Meyer learns about China “from the ground up,” he repeatedly hears about “5,000 years of history,” but what he observes is the Chinese urge to obliterate it. Archaeologists are given two weeks to excavate a 2,000-year-old tomb in Beijing before concrete is poured for a huge project. The distinctive Beijing hútòng neighborhoods have disappeared at a rapid rate, and whether Meyer is in Dalian or Lhasa, “progress looked like destruction.”
No one gets promoted, he learns, by trying to protect historical sites. When Meyer returns to Neijiang after being gone five years, he recognizes nothing. Fittingly, he becomes an ardent spokesman for historical preservation, and “Sleeping Dragon” is a captivating book that tells wonderful stories, both about the China Meyer witnesses and the China that has vanished.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.